You may say I’m a dreamer… my thoughts on the Laowa 17mm f/4 Zero-D GFX lens

by bryan minear
July 24, 2019

After what seems like forever since the Laowa 17mm f/4 GFX Zero-D has been rumored or teased, it is finally a reality and I got to play with it for about a month. I am a relatively new GFX50S owner, though my relationship with the camera dates way back to the launch event in 2017 (see below). I couldn’t possibly think of a better way to break in a new camera than by getting to play around with a brand new lens. As a landscape shooter, of course I have a pretty good bias to ultra-wide angle lenses. The Fujifilm 23mm f/4 is a wonderful lens, but 18mm in full frame equivalence does not a happy Bryan make. It’s just in a bit of an odd focal length for me. I much prefer the 15-16mm range that I am used to shooting on the X Series, so the Laowa coming in at right around 14mm is perfect.

Love at First Sight

Now for those of you who know me and the way that I write “reviews” this is going to be redundant. I’m not here to hit you over the head with scientific tests of sharpness and depth of field. The only, and I do mean ONLY thing that I care about in photography anymore is the art. Therefore, I hope you walk away from this “review” with a genuine idea of how this lens “felt” to me, and how it could possibly apply to your own work. In that same vein, I am in no way being compensated for this review. I was provided a lens by Venus Laowa for testing and have already sent it back off.

I’ll start with the only bit of technical info that you really might need. It’s comparable the GF32-64 and GF23 in size, and a bit lighter. It has a rock-solid build quality and no hood. The aperture selector on the lens is “de-clicked” i.e. it’s as smooth as the focus ring, which was probably the toughest thing for me to get used to. I often found myself bumping the aperture from where I wanted to be. Outside of a few cine lenses, this is the only lens that I have ever used that is like this. Not really a dealbreaker just something to take note of. The only other downside for me is that at an 86mm filter thread, I will not be able to use my 100mm NiSi filter holder which is a bummer. I’m sure there would probably be vignetting issues because this lens is so wide, so you’ll have to default to screw on filters for this one.

I’ll admit, when I get a new piece of gear my first goal is to take it out to a really cool location to test it out and the timing just hasn’t worked out. I received the lens only a few weeks AFTER I got home from a 3 week trip to the Middle East and haven’t had the time or resources to make another trip happen. So the results you will see below are the best that I could do here in Michigan and Northern Ohio.

The first thing that I noticed is that it’s a decent bit wider than the 10-24mm lens is on an X Series body that I own. I borrowed the XF8-16mm to take with me to Egypt and really got use to those extra millimeters, and the 17 really does feel like a sweet spot. Focusing is a breeze on a lens this wide, though I found myself shooting on a tripod often so that I could zoom in to 200% just to verify critical focus. I took the lens to my favorite pine tree grove as it fares awfully well when shot ultra wide.

Another discovery is how nice the sunstar is at f/16 to f/32. It’s reminiscent of the Samyang 12mm lens on the X Series cameras. This is something that I always look for in a lens that I know I’ll be using for landscape. Shooting at f/32 on a medium format system is going to result in a bit of diffraction, so sometimes I will bracket some exposures at f/8 to f/16 and then take another shot at f/32 just to be able to mask in that nice star in post. That being said, the shot below was shot at f/32 and accompanying 100% crop shows how sharp this lens is even stopped down.

100% crop

One other nice discovery is that due to the minimum focus distance, you can actually get some really nice bokeh when shooting wide open.

Running around the midwest with the lens was really nice, it has a really nice balance on the GFX50S, and feels like a very high quality piece of gear. The image quality really is quite spectacular in my testing, it’s very sharp corner to corner and I never ran into any troublesome vignetting, though as I said before, I’m in this for the final image, not the pixel peeping. One of the last tests that I put the lens through was an interior/exterior shoot for a hotel. I wanted to see how the lens would perform from a distortion standpoint considering the “Zero-D” designation on the box. I’ve never shot interiors with the GFX50S before, so I decided to put it into action for a client gig. And I have to say, this reticular lens design is really quite impressive. What Laowa has been able to pull off optically is going to prove useful to a lot of photographers who shoot architecture. Any bit of distortion was very easy to fix in post, but there typically wasn’t much needed at all. For a budget-friendly medium format lens, this one gets a thumbs up from me!

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